The Gaza Raid: No Help to U.S. Mideast Diplomacy

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Israeli naval soldiers stand guard on a missile ship as the Israeli navy intercepts peace boats bound for Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea on May 31, 2010

Suggesting that "Israel is gradually turning from an asset to ... a burden" for the U.S. would bring swift and ferocious denunciation on Capitol Hill. But that statement passed with barely a shrug in Jerusalem on Tuesday when it was made before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee by Meir Dagan, head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. And his point may well be illustrated in the weeks ahead, amid the diplomatic fallout from Israel's deadly Monday raid on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza. With a new aid vessel already en route to challenge the four-year economic siege of the Hamas-controlled territory — and activists promising a new flotilla — the U.S. faces a growing challenge in balancing its support for Israel with other important diplomatic relationships in the region.

The Obama Administration has absented itself from the near universal condemnation of Israel's handling of the Gaza flotilla, confining itself to statements of regret for the loss of life and calling for an Israeli-led investigation into the events that left at least nine pro-Palestinian activists dead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did allow on Tuesday that "the situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable," although she stopped short of demanding an end to the four-year siege. "Israel's legitimate security needs must be met, just as the Palestinians' legitimate needs for sustained humanitarian assistance and regular access to reconstruction materials must also be assured," Clinton said. Behind the scenes, however, U.S. officials were reportedly urging Israel to avoid repeating Monday's debacle with future ships and ensure that humanitarian aid is able to reach the territory. Although President Obama made a similar call in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world last year, that had little practical effect on the status quo. This time, however, a wider set of U.S. interests may hinge in part on defusing tensions over Gaza.

The U.S. certainly pays a political price in the Middle East for the perception that it is avoiding criticizing or pressuring the Israelis. From its failure to get the Netanyahu government to impose a settlement freeze to the likelihood that Israel will ignore Washington's call for the Jewish state to sign on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Obama Administration has seen the Arab world rapidly lose hope in the U.S. after the optimism prompted by the new President's early statements.

The most glaring diplomatic damage to the U.S. and Israel caused by Monday's raid, however, was the widening of the breach with Turkey, the most important ally in the Muslim world to both. Ankara branded the raid, in which at least four of its nationals were killed, an act of "state terrorism" and warned that it had irreparably damaged relations between Turkey and Israel. It also demanded support from its fellow NATO members. Even before the raid, Turkey had been irked by the Obama Administration's dismissal of its efforts to broker a nuclear compromise with Iran. Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Tuesday bluntly expressed his government's disappointment at the Obama Administration's response to the flotilla shootings.

Davutoglu did, however, salute the Europeans for their more forthright response, and promised to restore normal ties with Israel if the Gaza blockade were lifted. Britain's new Conservative Foreign Secretary, William Hague, condemned Israel's action, calling for a lifting of the siege and a "durable resolution to the Gaza crisis" — a goal that could only be realized through engagement with Hamas, in contrast to the current U.S.-led boycott of the organization. Public outrage across the Arab world prompted two silent partners in the Gaza siege — Egypt and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — to distance themselves from the Hamas boycott and the Gaza blockade. Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, ordered the opening of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, while the Fatah leadership spoke of isolating Israel in international forums and sending a delegation to Gaza.

The status quo deemed "unsustainable" by Clinton is rooted in a failed policy on Hamas shared by the U.S. and Israel. When the Islamists were elected to govern the Palestinian Authority in January 2006, Israel, encouraged by the Bush Administration, imposed an economic siege whose goal, according to a key Israeli government official at the time, was to "put the Palestinians on a diet" but avoid starving them to death, hoping that imposing misery would spur a revolt against Hamas. The policy of keeping Palestinians there on life support in a kind of twilight existence while the West Bank would be allowed to flourish under Fatah was endorsed by the U.S. through a peace process that simply ignored Gaza. But four years later, Hamas remains very much in charge of Gaza, even though the quality of life has deteriorated precipitously.

"The incident [at sea] is an indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which Israel does not bear sole responsibility," the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected mediation organization of former diplomats, wrote in a statement on Tuesday. "For years, many in the international community have been complicit in a policy that aimed at isolating Gaza in the hope of weakening Hamas. The policy is morally appalling and politically self-defeating. It has harmed the people of Gaza without loosening Hamas' control. Yet it has persisted regardless of evident failure."

The ICG's comment is a none-too-subtle indictment of the Obama Administration's failure to offer a viable strategy for dealing with Gaza's "unacceptable" reality. Washington's partners in the "Quartet" responsible for the Mideast peace process — including the European Union, Russia and the U.N. — had somewhat skeptically followed the Bush Administration's boycott of Hamas, but the flotilla bloodshed will likely accelerate the unraveling of that policy as Western and Arab public opinion presses governments to do more. Israel, however, has made clear that, while it may be persuaded to be more flexible on what it allows into Gaza, it has no intention of ending the blockade. And to the extent that the Obama Administration is perceived to accept the continuation of the siege, it could find its influence in the Middle East begin to wane, scuppering the President's hopes of resetting U.S. relations with the Muslim world.